Hi, everyone! Molly Beth Seremet, eager to live-blog this morning’s keynote address. We are pleased to welcome Tim Carroll (The Shaw Festival) for his keynote address titled Confessions of an Iambic Fundamentalist. This keynote address takes place in the Blackfriars Conference from 10:30am – 11:30 and is sponsored by John Attig.
American Shakespeare Center Director of Mission Ralph Cohen begins with an introduction of our keynote speaker, Tim Carroll. He reminds us of Carroll’s Tony-award winning production of Twelfth Night and lists an impressive list of directing credits that span the world. Cohen jokes that a close look at Carroll’s resume might make us wonder if in fact this man can keep a job. Cohen of course then reminds us that Carroll is the new Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival. Cohen now introduces the provocative title of “TC’s” keynote and lets the assembled crowd know that here at the American Shakespeare Center, we are allies in the cause of Original Practices, leading to a rousing cheer of “Amen!” from the crowd. Now Cohen launches into an impassioned defense of our shared love for iambic pentameter and lets him know that, “we welcome you’re confession, Brother Carroll… in your witness against the demon trochee. Cohen asks for a “righteous Blackfriars welcome for TC” and begs him to “please come speak to [his] flock!”
Carroll begins with a wry comment: “Well, that’s the sort of welcome every performer dreads!” He then tells us that this is first time in the Blackfriars Playhouse and mentions that he thinks it is even more lovely than the Wannamaker. On that note, he now introduces his speak, sharing that his nickname of “iambic fundamentalist” was given to him by the RSC. Carroll gives us a sense of his background, mentioning that he came across Barton’s series Playing Shakespeare at the age of 18 on his way to Oxford and connected with that sense of linguistic ‘horse whispering’ that the series deals in. Carroll explains that this exposure shaped his university career, though he is a classicist by trade, leading him to direct five productions in his time at Oxford. Now, Carroll confesses that while he still agrees with Barton’s ideas, he disagrees with Barton’s approach. Carroll now moves to a discussion of Barton’s methodology of marking scansion, using stressed and unstressed markings to find the offbeats in the text. Now, Carroll says he distrusts this method because it relies on trusting actors, much to the amusement of the assembled crowd.
Carroll tells us that on his first professional productions of Shakespeare was Julius Caesar. He shows us some text from the tent scene of the play and mentions that it is one his personal favorite scenes across the canon. He calls out a moment in rehearsal in which the actor playing Brutus stressed all of his personal pronouns (Must I budge? Must I observe you?) instead of scanning the line to find and use the operative words. He describes the process of working through this with an actor who suggested that scansion “is a choice.” The audience chuckles knowingly.
Now, Carroll turns to a look at text from 2 Henry VI, exposing the same issue. Carroll explains that in real life in public speaking scenarios, we generally do not stress personal pronouns and then when we get onstage, we forget. Carroll implores the assembled crowd to not seek him out after the keynote to claim that “i’m sure I do it instinctually.” Carroll then says, “No, you don’t, which is why I’m talking about it.” Then, he uses a delightfully naughty word which I shan’t print here… but it was a jolly good one!
Carroll likens the debate over the uses and need for solid scansion strikes a sour note for him, and likens it to choral or operatic singing. In those forms, debates over singing an F when the score calls for an A would be silly. He suggests that this should be considered similarly in Shakespearean terms, because “the verse knows best.”
Now, Carroll begins a close reading of the text from the Julius Caesar tent scene. In his reading, he shows how proper scansion makes the important and story-telling words in the passage “pop.” Carroll marks this scene as a pivotal one in the development of his ideas. In working on this play early in his career, he begin to think that the model of working to understand a play before scanning it is a backwards endeavor. Carroll shares a story of a professor who used to teach a play for a few weeks before teaching a unit on the play’s verse structure. When flipping the pedagogical approach, however, the professor found that teaching the play’s verse for two weeks first dispensed with the need to then teach the play; the students already understood the play as a result of cracking the play’s verse code.
Now, Carroll shifts to a discussion of why scansion matters in theatrical practice. He states that his desire to rely on a play’s scansion comes out of a desire to remove forced vehemence, one of actors’ favorite performance strategies. Carroll demonstrates the way that stressing personal pronouns incorrectly adds an inappropriate and untoward level of force to the language. This artificiality works against the performance, showing us prisoners of our own habits. Instead, Carroll asks us to trust the verse instead of our preconceived notions about what language does.
Carroll now has us look at a passage from As You like it, in which Rosalind actors clutch for anything that sounds extreme, “that sounds like it’s a BIG DEAL!” Carroll points out that directors share the blame for this phenomenon in a constant push to “raise the stakes.” In contrast, Carroll describes his own directing process in which he often asks actors to lower the stakes, “to solve the problem quickly and get out in time for an early tea.” He asks us to consider the way that this approach softens a mad clutching for anything that sounds vehement or forceful in the language.
Carroll now looks at the ways words like “too” “so,” and “all.” He explains that actors will naturally gravitate towards these words because they feel “big.” Carroll demonstrates, however, the infrequency with which these words actually appear in stressed positions in the line, and urges us to consider the resonance gained by using these words as springboards for the important (properly stressed) words in the line. He points out that stressing words like “so” in phrases like “it’s SO nice to see you” actually suggests insincerity and phoniness in place of real connection.
Carroll reiterates that “the verse knows best” and says that now, this is his working mantra. He uses the Rosalind’s line “who might be your mother?” as an example. He demonstrates a sassy reading of the line, letting “who might be YOUR mother” ring through the Blackfriars Playhouse. Carroll admits that this sort of snappy reading sometimes connects with schoolchildren in matinee audiences, but qualifies that this forced connection isn’t bringing audiences into the beauty and functionality of the language. He employs a further example from Hamlet to leverage his argument as well, demonstrating the ways that a simpler, less forced reading of the “my father” passage of the closet scene allows Hamlet to parrot Gertrude’s rhythms and throw them back at her in a useful and effective way.
Carroll now moves to a look at line endings and mid0line breaks. He leverages examples from The Winter’s Tale to show the way that stressing the last word of the line allows us to hear a character get an idea. Carroll introduces us to another of his mantras to actors which is to “wait until the last possible second to get that idea. How long can it take for the idea to drop in?” He allows us to hear the natural urgency that this tactic brings out in the play’s language. He also discusses mid-line breaks as well, urging actors to consider each mid-line break as an opportunity for another actor to try to “grab the speaking stick.”
Carroll exhorts, “let us try to speak iambically until it kills us.” He mentions that he is very nearly at the point of asking actors to say words like “faMISHD’ly,” because he explains that he has never really felt that this iambic approach goes too far for an audience’s ears. Carroll shares an anecdote in which an audience member saw Carroll’s production of Richard III which employed these approachs to language, and the patron sought out a box office staffer to ask what other productions in the season were being done in “modernized language.” Thus, rigorous use of Shakespeare’s verse structure pleases our modern aural sensibilities.
Now, we turn to trochees. Though trochees exist, Carroll asks his actors to consider returning to the iambic structure as early as possible after the displacement of the trochee. He suggests activating the second syllable of the word to work back into the iambic structure. Carroll says that one question he is asked frequently is if he expects 100% adherence to the verse in his productions and he explains that he does, because he knows he will never get it. If he insists on 100%, he gets 70%. For him, this approach opens up productive conversations in the rehearsal room with skilled practitioners who already have thoughts on the matter. As Carroll concludes, he says that a foundational question in his directing practice is “what are we doing about the verse?”
Now, we move to some questions from the assembled audience. A scholar asks Carroll to clarify his position on vehemence, asking if that means vehemence is forbidden in his productions. Carroll clarifies that he means that he asks his actor to “not try to be vehement. Vehemence isn’t a choice.” He further explains his position on trochees, stating that he urges actors to not decide something is a trochee. As Carroll states, “Soldier, there are no trochees for you. If a trochee happens to you, however, we’ll deal with it then.”
The keynote concludes with warm applause and cheers throughout the playhouse. Thanks for following along on our blog! I will return to the blog for this afternoon’s plenary session. It has been a pleasure to share this keynote with you!